Artist activists on education, ownership, and true community

Chaun Webster is a poet, publisher, and the co-founder of Ancestry Books. (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)

Should artists of color seek representation in major institutions, or should they create their own spaces to better serve their communities?

That was just one of the ideas that we wrestled with at a recent conversation with four Twin Cities artists/activists who are using their talents in a myriad of ways to promote and support their cultures. The event was part of an ongoing series at MPR that brings in artists to talk about issues they feel aren't being given their due in mainstream media.

Chaun Webster is a poet, publisher and a co-founder (with his wife) of the newly formed Ancestry Books, a bookstore that aims "to take the narratives of black and brown communities that are traditionally found at the periphery, and put them center stage."

Webster said it's time that educational and social service institutions reexamined who they define as "young people" and what they call "youth programming."

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"Often there's this cut off in programming when you hit 18," Webster said, "and the years between 18 and 24 were some of the most developmental years for me. It was peak time, it formed a foundation for me. I don't think I would had some of the changes I had between the ages of 24 and 29, if I hadn't those foundational experiences beforehand. But there's not as much funding for that. Often times there's funding for organizations that work with underrepresented youth - which is just language for black and brown youth from poor communities - but there's not money for those youth. So if you're 18 to 24 and you don't have prospects for college and you have no programming in your community, where are you going? What is there for you? There's nothing for you in the North side [of Minneapolis], I'll tell you that right now: There's nothing.

Chaun Webster is a poet, publisher, and the co-founder of Ancestry Books.Nikki Tundel / MPR News

"So how do we create spaces that validate us? I don't expect the Walker to do it. I don't expect the Ordway to do it, or the Guthrie or any number of other spaces to do that work. There are good people in those spaces doing good work, it's not to say there aren't. But how is it that I build sites that validate our communities - not as an afterthought, not on the periphery?  I'm past the place of thinking these spaces are going to do the work of representing us. The truth is we may need our own presses, our own radios, our own theaters, our own spaces where we can dance and sing and organize in our own rhythms."

Webster says he doubts that mainstream organizations are truly interested in having substantive representation from communities of color.

Longtime performer E.G. Bailey is used to creating things he thinks are needed in the community, whether it's the Minnesota Spoken Word Association or Speakeasy Records.

"You can only hit your head against the wall so many times," said Bailey. "Sometimes you have to come to the realization that in trying to get into certain spaces, once you get there, you may not even want to be there. It's not the space you should be in. It's not structured for you. Spaces are like people, like homes; you create your home to represent you. You can walk into someone else's home and it may look beautiful,  it may be warm, the food is good - but it's not your home. You've got to create your own home, where you can feel at rest in a different way than you do at someone else's house. Where do you feel at rest? Where do you feel most comfortable? Where do you feel most yourself? And where can the essence of who you are be most exhibited, experienced, exuded and celebrated?

E.G. Bailey has worked in film, theater and radio in the Twin Cities for 20 years. He's currently assistant directing "Othello" at the Guthrie Theater.

"It's important to continue to break barriers and create change and push things to evolve," said Bailey. "At the same time you also have to build your own. There are a lot of elders who've said to me over the years that they're not particularly happy about desegregation. It may not have been the best thing to have happened. So you may change something or get into a space and work and changing it, and you may come to the realization that it wasn't worth all the effort to change it. Maybe the effort would have been better used to create something of your own."

Bailey worries that there's not just a deficiency of diversity in representation - there's a deficiency in the diversity of ideas.

"True diversity - it's a recognition of humanity point blank. If I recognize your humanity, there can be diversity, because that's the basic principle. We're all human beings. We have different backgrounds, we have different cultural aesthetics, we have different stories to tell, but at the core we're all human beings. The problem is that there isn't a recognition of that humanity, and things get put into boxes - these people are lacking, they're not doing things right, there's something wrong with them culturally... to me that's all noise to create a certain kind of narrative. The basic reality is that you have a community made up of people and those people have needs - a need to be supported, a need to be recognized, and a need to have a place to express themselves and tell their stories," Bailey said.

Toki Wright is the Department Head of the nation's first fully accredited Hip-Hop Studies program at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, MN. Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Toki Wright is a man of many talents, and many projects. He's working on putting out a new album with Big Cats called "Pangea." He also writes for Insight News and hosts "Soul Tools Radio" on KFAI. Wright says his purpose is to gain power for his communities.

"My reason for being in radio, in the written word, and for being a performer is to showcase the work of my communities, and not as an afterthought but as an  'of course!' thought," said Wright.

"I've never had the luxury of 'comfort' living in this state," Wright said. "I don't know how much we recognize that there's a mass exodus of talent from people of color from the state of Minnesota, and they leave because they do not feel supported, they do not feel the true idea of community that they may have visualized in their head. So my job has always been to create a sense of home. Over the summer the U.S. State Department sent me to Sierra Leone as an arts ambassador, and it was one of those moments where you know that when you got another place where you are everyone - the feeling is different. You can walk down the street and as long as I kept my mouth shut, I was normal.  I do want to have spaces to freely share my ideas and not be ostracized for it. I want to be able to share ideas and create spaces for people to want to stay and fight. And that often means I have to go elsewhere to get the tools I need to come back."

Wright is particularly worried about how the media talks about young people, or rather, which young people the media chooses to talk about.

"Minnesota has a perversion with wanting to talk about gang life. It's relevant and it's important but it's not the majority of our young people that are really struggling to find access to opportunity. It's a lot of extreme cases. I just want to figure out how we can change the narrative a little bit, when we talk about young people, to not always talk about the extreme, but talk about that big bulk of people in the middle that don't have art in class, don't have music classes, don't have phys ed, and what kind of lifestyle choices they based on that. Some people go to the extreme, and some of them become potatoes."

Actor and community activist Sha Cage agreed.

"It's also a conversation that needs to be had with the funding agencies, because those extremities get all the attention and then the ones that are in the middle zone, who are at that critical juncture where they just need a pat on the back, and to have an instrument or a camera put in their hand and really shown that they have a gift that they were born with - they're missing out because there's not the attention on them. I see it all the time," said Cage. "I think there's a disconnect in how we as a culture are educated and what we see as important."

Sha Cage is a writer and performer. She was most recently on stage at Penumbra Theatre in "The Ballad of Emmett Till."

Cage, who was most recently on state at Penumbra Theatre in "The Ballad of Emmett Till" says she wants to hear more stories celebrating the lesser known community heroes.

"I love stories that reflect my world and the world around me," said Cage. "When I look back, I realize how many people were important to our community and they've disappeared, because either they've moved on, or they've passed, or they've moved to a different layer of the community because their work wasn't celebrated. I feel like there are these missing links that are so vital to a community, like the old Mom and Pop stores, the young upstarts, or the quiet elders who work so hard behind the scenes. Sometimes I think there are all these change makers around that we don't recognize, because we go for the ones who already have names, or that we've been referred to. I think those are essential stories that are missing from the conversation."

Many thanks to Sha Cage, Toki Wright, E.G. Bailey and Chaun Webster.